Category Archives: African History

The Issue of the Origin and Meaning of Kente (aka Kete)

The Issue of the Origin and Meaning of Kente (aka Kete)

Kente (aka Kete) is the most famous and the most celebrated of all the textiles used in Ghana. However, there are conflicting claims about the true origin, evolution of the hand-loom strip weaving and the meaning of the name Kente/Kete.

Centuries-Old Anlo/Ewe – Asante Relationship: In some of my previous rejoinders, I indicated that both Anlos and Asantes have never fought any major wars in their history, either pre and or post Republic of Ghana. It was also pointed out that several years ago; Prof. Devine E. A. Amenumey has rebutted the late Prof. Albert Adu Boahen’s claim of Asante’s hegemony over Anlo. Historically, there was a military alliance between the Asantes and the Anlos, a coastal/southern sub-group of the Ewes. The alliance dates back to the mid 1750s. The Anlo and Asante were allies who assisted each other in times of wars by opening diversionary war-fronts to engage their enemies that were at war with each others friendly states. Anlos as allies supplied large quantities of firearms and ammunition to the Asantes whenever the trading ports west of Accra were blocked to the Asantes (see J. K. Fynn, Asante and Akyem Relations 1700-1831, page 16-17).

We should also recall that the Asantes were allies of the Anlos, not only for military and political reasons, but for economic (trade) reasons as well. Records show that the Asantes needed salt and relied heavily on the Anlos for the supply. Hence, a strong bond developed between the two nations based on trade. The Asantes fought the Akwamus and the other groups like the Krobos that tried to disrupt their salt supply. We should all remember that the Great Trade Routes that developed through Africa was built entirely on salt. Salt was an important and much sought-after commodity over which wars were fought at the time. It is only these days that this key information tends to be often belittled or completely overlooked.

We learnt in my previous article (http://www.modernghana.com/news/220365/1/rejoinder-asantehene-new-progress-philosophy-etc.html) that at times, the Anlo State sent emissaries to the court of the then Asantehenes to relate messages from the Anlo Awoamefia and their war-councils. An “honour stool”, Akrobortu was created by one of the Asantehenes in appreciation for the role that an emissary played as Linguist-Messenger-Emissary between the Anlo Awoamefia and the Asantehene. Because of the centuries old friendship between Anlos and Asantes the late Otumfuo Opoku Ware II, the fifteenth (15th) Asantehene sent gold dust and other items for the burial and funeral rites of the late Torgbi Adeladza II, coincidentally the fifteenth (15th) Anlo Awoamefia (Paramount Chief) in 1998.

Recently, Dr. Kwame Botwe-Asamoah has also observed on Ghanaweb that, and I quote “Yes, the Asante-Anlo/Ewe bond is perhaps the strongest phenomenon between any ethnics groups in today’s Ghana. This is born out of the critical roles the Asantehene and Anlo Awoamefia play in each other’s burial and coronations. Traditionally, the Asantehene is the one who buries the Anlo Awomeafia as was the case of the late Awoamefia Adeladza II. Even today, a royal Anlo-Ewe can easily form part of the Asantehene’s circle to perform rituals in the sacred stool house during Akwasidae or Odwira to the exclusion of 99.9% Asantes”. Unquote.

Let me also add that in addition to the “personal friendship” between Asantehene Barima Osei Tutu I and Amega Atsu Tsala Akplormada (“the spear that is never thrown” as per correction), several other Anlos/Ewes have excellent interpersonal relationships with Asantes and other Akans. Of particular significance and or relevance is the interpersonal relationship that existed between the late Otumfuo Opoku Ware II, the fifteenth (15th) Asantehene and one of the Anlo “Bokorga” of blessed memory, the late Amega Awukutse Vorsa Kutor of Tegbi Kpota near Anloga. Suffice it to say only that the late Amega Awukutse Vorsa Kutor was the chief “afakala” for late Otumfuo Opoku Ware II. We need not get into the personal details here!

In 1865, the Anlos entered into a tripartite alliance with the Asantes, under Asantehene Kwaku Duah, the most peaceful and wise ruler of the kingdom of Asante, and the Akwamus (see J. A. B. Horton, Letters on the political condition of the Gold Coast, since the exchange of territory between the English and Dutch governments, on January 1, 1868 together with a short account of the Ashantee War, 1862-4, and the Awoonah War, 1866, 2nd Ed. 1970). After Kwaku Duah’s death on 27th April 1867 he was succeeded by his fiery young nephew of 25 years old, Asantehene Kofi Karikari who subsequently presented a sword to Awadada Axorlu I, the military commander of Anlo to seal the alliance. This sword is preserved till today and is among the regalia of the Kaklaku stool (see A. Kumassah, the Migration Saga of the Anlo-Ewes of Ghana, 2005 Edition, pages 76-77). During the war of 1869-1872 (the only recorded Asante war in which the Awoamefia of Anlo took part), in which Asantes and Akwamus invaded central Eweland, it was Awadada Axorlu I who intervened because of the tripartite alliance and gave the missionaries escort and free passage to Keta. The allies then invaded Agortime (Agortime-Kpetoe or Kpetoe) an ally of Accra at the time, about 23 kilometers south east of Ho, where Asantes captured some expert “Agbatsimevor/Agbamevor/Avor” (now Ewe-Kete) weavers and took them to Asante to show them the art of “kete” weaving.

Asantes Claims to Kente/Kete Weaving: The Asante’s lame explanations of the two brothers Nana Kuragu and Nana Ameyaw and their friend Nana Otaa Kraban learning ‘kente’ weaving by watching a Ntikuma spider (Ananse) weaving a web on a farm at Akyinso, now Bomfa in Bonwire and the name ‘kente’ deriving from the Akan word for basket: kɛntɛn or kenten has already been debunked elsewhere. We still find it hard to believe that “kente” which “started in Asante” as a refined cloth woven exclusively for royalty and woven only by men (women are forbidden to sit on the loom or else they become barren) would be named after a basket, a crude and porous container woven exclusively by women. The claim that King Osei Tutu I of Asante (1695-1717) conferred the title of Kentehene on Nana Kuragu and Nana Ameyaw of Bonwire in or about 1698 is also questionable (see Kente Origins, History, Development and Cultural Significance – By O. B. Sarfo Kantanka). Let alone the claim that “The three artists (two brothers Nana Kuragu and Nana Ameyaw and their friend Nana Otaa Kraban from Bonwire) lived for a long time. They were contemporaries of some chiefs and kings of Kumasi and Asante respectively, i.e. Twum-Antwi (1580-1600), Kobia Amenfi (1600-1630), Oti Akenten (1630-1600), Obiri Yeboa (1660-1697), Osei Tutu I (1697-1717) and Opoku Ware I (1720-1750). Their longevity is attributed to the blessing that they received from Okomfo Anokye (chief priest of Asante) in appreciation of their work. Okomfo Anokye himself was said to have lived for over 200 years (see: The Envoy October, 2004 Vol. 1. No. 1).” Waooo! How far can they stretch their figments of imagination! It is interesting however to note once again that the mystic, Amega Atsu Tsala Akplormada (the Okomfo from Nortsie, aka Okomfo Anokye) is being quoted in this and other related write-ups.

We all know that basket weaving is not the same as spider-web weaving let alone kete (kente) weaving. This is nothing more than an anansesem (spider story or ayiyigli). For one thing, a spider does not weave cloth, it makes a net (web, ayiyiɖɔ), and the technique the spider uses in making a net (web, ayiyiɖɔ) has absolutely no resemblance to the technique used in kente weaving or even basket weaving for that matter. The origin of the word “kente” is also commonly tied to the Asante phrase, “ke-ente,” which means “whatever happens to it, it will not tear.” (http://www.gomemphis.com/news/2009/jun/01/the-fabric-that-will-not-tear/). Oh yes, Kete strips come apart and are resown by needle-stitches or by machine. And we do believe that after lots of wear and tear, ”kete haa vuvu na.” At that stage, it is used as ”dovu” and spread on mat(s) for infants and toddlers to lie on to absorb their urine. ”Amekae mekpor Kete-vuvu kpo o maha”? Another claim by the Asantes is that kente was originally woven with thin raffia fiber (edoa or ela) for yarn. Frankly, we do see how raffia can be used to weave on the kete loom. However, there is no doubt that ‘kete’ originated from ‘ke’ and ‘te’ the two main alternating rhythmic actions involved in the operation of the loom, and that the Ewes used the words when they were teaching the Asantes. The name “kete” meaning ‘ke (spread or open)’ and ‘te (tighten or press)’ was corrupted to “Kente”, a modified material as made by the Ashantis in the village of Bonwire, located ~20 km east of Kumasi, on the road between Ejisu and Juaben. “Ke na te”, Kete is the process in making the cloth that gives it its name. In the weaving process you open the weft “ke”, pass the waft through it and press “te”. You repeat those actions hundreds and thousands of time to have the kete cloth. We are not claiming that Ewes first invented the art of weaving. No, there is no dispute about this.

The History of Weaving on the Loom: The technique of weaving on the loom had been invented in different societies around the world thousands of years ago when human beings started wearing woven cloth garments instead of covering themselves with leaves, barks and animal skins and fur. While there is evidence of weaving of plant fibers in Africa as early as 5000 to 4000 BC, it is thought that the horizontal loom and weaving of cotton was introduced sometime in the first millennium. The Puels (Fulani) were the first to learn the trade from Syrian Semitic people from the northeast. While first working with wool, the Puels became skilled at working the loom and developed the practice of working with the new fiber, cotton–learning the techniques from the Arabs. The oldest known mention of the local production of cotton fabrics in the area is in a book written by the learned geographer, traveler and pious Arab Sunni, El Bekri, dated 1068 (Thomas, Mainguy, and Pommier 1985, p.95). The techniques in weaving strips of fabric spread rapidly. Both loom and cotton industries were transmitted to the Tukulors, the Wolofs and then to the different Mande people of the Sudan, soon reaching the Bambara, the Dogon and others (ibid.). Hence, the Ewes did not invent weaving.

The Origin, History and Technique of Weaving Ewe Kete (aka Kente):

When we talk specifically about “Kete/Kente Weaving” on the narrow loom, the equipment and the technique between the Ewes and Asantes are so similar that there is no doubt that they originated from the same source. Some writers also claim that Kete (Kente) was probably introduced from the western Sudan during the 16th century, when heavy, elaborate, labor-intensive versions of this fabric were designed for wealthy “tribal” chiefs and simpler designs became available for the general citizenry (http://www.webexhibits.org/colorart/african-kente.html). We would therefore like to reiterate the fact that the name “kete” says it all: ‘ke’ describes spreading and separating the warp threads on the loom by the “up and down movement of the heddles produced by operating the foot pedals” and ‘te’ describes tightening and packing the threads by hand action after the shuttle carrying the weft (transverse) thread is passed through the shed (http://www.cfiks.org/Community/page19/page22/page22.html). In 2006, Richard Kwame Debra wrote on GhanaWeb (http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/features/artikel.php?ID=106944&comment=0#com) and I quote:

“Isn’t it interesting and ironic that the most popular song composition to glorify Kente weaving “Asante Bonwire kente nwene” composed by Ghana’s greatest musicologist, Dr. Ephraim Amu (a very proud Ewe) was about the stunning weaving skills of Bonwire weavers, and what is most amazing is that one of the most prolific and legendarily skillful Kente weavers of Bonwire, a man called Samuel Cofie is an Ewe man born in Anyako, another Kente weaving town in Eweland? Cofie has been weaving Kente since 1961”.

The fact that Bonwire is the center of Ashanti kente weaving in Ghana does not mean the weaving process was invented there. Similarly, if Dr. Ephraim Amu mentioned Asante Bonwire kente in his musical composition, it does not say a thing about its origins.

It is KETE, not kente and Ewes first wove it! In the olden days, our forebears used materials locally available to them to create products. Where did Ashantis get cotton threads to weave the first Kente cloth? Did cotton grow in the evergreen forest of the then Gold Coast? Did the Asantes know how to cultivate, harvest and turn it into yarns, dye them and then use them to weave the first piece of cloth, they now call kente? Oh yes, Kweku Ananse taught them how to weave kente! Ananse indeed! Cotton grows in the plains and that is why most Northerners have SMOCKS and Ewes have KETE and both groups weave, because it is in their ancient traditions, not just some less than 300 years old Ananse story. Silk from the Far East was introduced into weaving KETE by blending it with cotton, because Ewes along the coast had access to it from European traders. Raymond E. Dummet (Obstacles to Government-Assisted Agricultural Development in West Africa: Cotton-Growing Experimentation in Ghana in the Early Twentieth Century) wrote and I quote “…cotton was generally cultivated in small quantities, usually in combination with food crops, by the Ewe in the trans-Volta territories of the south-eastern region and by the Dagomba and other peoples in the Northern Territories (Rept. By G .E. Ferguson, 19 Nov. 1892, encl. 1 in Griffith (Secret) to Ripon, 26 Nov. 1892; Colonial Office 96/226. Also, Rept. By Asst. Inspector Lethbridge, 4 March 1889, encl. In Griffith to C.O., C.O. Afr. 354, No. 42, p. 75).”

We have to give credit where it is due for there is no need to deny the truth and history and concoct Ananse stories just to uphold self-aggrandizement. We have to deal and contend with the fact that Kente is not an Ashanti invention but an Ewe one called KETE, a name corrupted into Kente, just as Nortsie was corrupted to Anokye. We cannot however change the weaving process that kete means. One of the oldest known kete or kente cloths is in a museum in UCLA, a university in California USA (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History). It came from the Ewes. Let me quickly say this. The Smithsonian museum confirmed that the oldest “Kete” cloth is that which was made by Ewes as a royal cloth for a king and dates back to the 1500s or so. The Smithsonian Institute had also traced the origin of Kete to Agortime and invited some weavers from Agortime to the institute when Kete was being celebrated by the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, our cousins have used the presence of the University of Science and Technology, Art Department at Kumasi to document and inform the world that the royalty of “Kente” cloth started in the Asante Empire as early as the 1200s. Let me say that between 1200 and 1500 the only prominent kingdoms in West Africa were those of Benin, Mali and Songhai. By 1300 the Mali Empire came to its height and Mansa Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. How can the Asante Empire have existed when the Songhai Empire took over from Mali Empire in 1324. It was not until in 1695 that the mystic Okomfo Anokye assisted Asantehene Osei Tutu to defeat Denkyiras and made Kumasi his capital!

A young man has also completed a detailed research into Ewe Kente weaving and has formulated new hypotheses on the early evolution of design and techniques of Ewe and Asante weaving. It is titled “Colourful changes: two hundred years of design and social history in the hand-woven textiles of the Ewe speaking regions of Ghana and Togo (1800-2000)” by Kraamer, Malika.

One then questions why it is written at the website www.africawithin.com/tour/ghana/kente.htm, among other things, that “The origin of (Asante) kente cloths date back to 12thcentury Africa, in the country of Ghana” and that “The original Asante named the cloth was nsaduaso or nwontoma, meaning “a cloth hand-woven on a loom” and is still used today by Asante weavers and elders.” As written and published, this information predates the war of 1869-1872 by seven centuries. Additionally, the ”Asante State” or Empire DID NOT EVEN EXIST in the 12thCentury!

The Variety (Variation), Quality and Prestige of Ewe Kete (aka Kente):

Even though Agortime Kpetoe is the place cited frequently for Ewe kente, kete weaving is prevalent throughout Anlo and mid-Ewe villages and towns. In writing about the Ewe kete, we need to draw attention to the massive work done by the Italian master weaver Lucianno Ghesi at the website and links at www.hypertextile.net, and the “Blakhund Research Centre” set up in Klikor, with Dale Massiasta, as the Director, devoted exclusively to the Ewe Kete (http://www.hypertextile.net/afevo/symbol1.htm). They have posted about one hundred varieties of Ewe Kete in their catalogue just from Klikor alone and as well as written about Ewe kente weavers in Nigeria, where Ewes once lived. They have made an attempt to group the 130 plus samples listed in the catalogue by type, e.g., VUTSATSA, KPEVI, NOVI, KOGAVI, ADANU. While a few are listed by number and name, the majority are listed only by numbers and you have to click on each number in order to get the name of the cloth, the name of the weaver, year of weaving, techniques, medium, size, count, meaning & history, and related pieces. It should be noted that not all the samples have all the information either. Then you have to make clicks again to get the Virtual STITCH and Detail. It will also be appropriate to refer to Bob Dennis Ahiagble’s book: “The Pride of Ewe Kente.” As we all know, Kete has numerous artistically intricate figurative motifs which are technically more complex to weave than the geometric patterns of Asante Kente. We can now understand why the Ewe Kete won the national Ghana Independence Kente Competition which was organized by the department of Social Welfare at the Accra Community Center on March 4, 1957 (pictures are available upon request). The 22 year old beauty queen from Hohoe, who won the contest, Ms. Monica Amekoafia, was wearing authentic Ewe Kete and representing Trans Volta Togoland (with Contestant #9). At the time, there were only four regions in the Gold Coast: 1. The Gold Cost Colony, 2. The Ashanti Protectorate, 3. The Northern Territories and 4. Trans Volta Togoland (First Ever Miss Ghana, Monica. UK 4th Apr, 1957 News; The Press: London UK). We will revisit the issue of Ewes being derogatorily referred to as “#9” by the uninformed with educational details at the appropriate time. Suffice it to just say that “#9” is not an insult to Ewes but rather pride!

There are two types of Kete, the typical Ewe-Kete of the Anlo as well as the much prized Kpetoe-Kete which Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, the former First lady of Ghana had made popular with her patronage to the chagrin of the Asantes. Mr. Jerry John Rawlings, the former President of Ghana could never have worn the Bonwire Kente. His spouse, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings made sure he wore quality Kpetoe-Kete and gradually he became adept at it. It was one of the quality ones that were specially designed and donated by the Rawlings to US former President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hilary Rodan Clinton when they visited Ghana in April 1998. It should be noted that even though Agortime Kpetoe is the place cited frequently for Ewe kente, kete weaving is prevalent throughout Anlo and mid-Ewe villages and towns.

As we alluded to earlier, the Kpetoe variety uses more cotton combined with silken (Rayon) tread, making it stronger, thicker and sturdier on the wearer. What we call ”Agbozume Kete” is generally the single weave and light type meant for the general market and those who know what quality Kete is, shy away from it. ”Agbozume Kete” is highly commercialized and is mass-produced to cut down on costs. However, when you place a special order for a chosen design of Ewe-Kete, and you are willing to pay the appropriate price, it is the double-weave KEDEDZI/KEREDZI that you get.

What did Ewes Used to call Ewe Kete (aka Kente) and What is the Principal Difference Between Ewe Kete and Asante Kente?

Now to the question of what Ewes used to call Ewe Kete (aka Kente). They have always called it Ke-Te. The name for the ”Loom” used in weaving ‘Kete’ is called AGBATSI.” To differentiate Woven Cloth from any other cloth, the product of the Loom was called ‘Agbatsimevor‘, shortened to “Agbamevor” or Ke-Te. Today, the Kete Festival of the ”Agortime Kpetoe People” is called ”AGBAMEVOR-ZA.” Generally, as of now, Kpetoe Kete is mostly prepared (Avor-tsitsi) in the double ”tsitsi” mode and is woven to be thick and strong which in Anlo, we call ”Kededzi” or ”Keredzi.” The single type used to be light and not as heavy. The Asante Kente is mostly a single ”tsitsi” weave and is mostly done with silk, rayon, and ‘shiny’ [lurex] thread which makes it light and when worn is unsteady on the wearer, behaving like ”obey-the-wind.” Take a look at old pictures of people wearing Asante Kente and you will notice right away that the cloths looked ‘‘biworbiwor” due to the excessive use of rayon, as against the predominantly more cotton-mix of today.

So here we are, “Agbatsimevor/AGBAMEVOR” = Kete (aka Kente).Agbatsimevor” identifies the cloth as the product of the ‘loom’ and ”Kete” is the method of producing the cloth in the loom by opening the ”avortsitsi” with the foot-pedal, and passing the shuttle through, and then using one hand to pull the tread passed through by the shuttle tight = ‘Tee’.

What do Ewes Claim? Our claim therefore remains that Ewes taught Asantes the technique of kete (kente) weaving on the narrow looms. Period! In her book, ”Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity (Ucla Fowler Museum of Cultural History Textile Series, No. 2)” Doran Ross has indicated that “in written records it dates back to at least 1847 when a man’s cloth of twenty seven strips was accessioned into a Danish collection as cotton blanket (Kintee) from Popo an Ewe town in present day Togo”. We are also aware of the fact that ancient Ewes from Badagry (formally Gbagle or Ogbaglee in Lagos State of Nigeria), Dahumey (now Benin), and Togo knew the art of weaving on the narrow loom several hundreds of years ago. They all wove strips of ‘Kete’ dyed brown from the colour of tree barks to make Adewu” i.e. ”Hunter’s smock” or ”War Tunics”. The Ewe people learned to spin cotton several years ago and turned these into woven loom-cloth called Kete or Agbatsimevor before they arrived at where they are today.

We would not argue with the fact that even though it is the Ewes who taught the Asantes the narrow-loom weaving, it was the Asantes who first came up with the name “kente” which, as we know, was corrupted from the two main words “ke” and “te” the Ewes used when teaching them. Before then, the Ewes simply called the product avo or avor, and went back to using kete only after the Asantes corrupted the weaving process “ke te” (ke na te) to the name kente. Asantes should also be credited for coming up with the more colourful, vivid and more recognizable geometric-patterned kente.

It was also during the 1869-1872 exploits that thousands of people were marched to Kumasi under the Kumase Gyasehene who was given the accolade Obubasa (arm breaker) for his military exploits. This did in fact lead to the construction of Atakpame type of architecture as found in Asante (comments from Kofi Ellison).

These facts do not mean that there were no skirmishes on each other from each others part – Anlos and Asantes. During our traditional history lessons at school, we learnt about the “battle” at Mount Gemi when the Ewedomeawo rolled boulders down the slopes of Mount Gemi and forced the invading army to flee. The invaders tried to steal the church bell at the EP-Church HQ about 150 years ago. The bell bears a bullet hole from the invaders. EP Church HQ is just near Mawuli Secondary School, Ho. There is a song in Eweland to that effect: ”Matre Gemi …, Maa … Kpando, … nge Kpalime, … shashasha!”

I would however like to conclude one more time that when Ewes and Asantes come together with a united front and cooperate on several platforms, Ghana would become one of the real pace-setters of Africa in particular and a heaven on earth for mankind in general. It is therefore very important for all Ghanaians, especially Ewes and Asante to continue with the centuries old friendship and relationship that existed between them and stop insulting each other on the web and or openly in public. New alliances ought to be sought and garnered among all Ghanaians in promoting such a desirable and a much needed unification.

We would therefore like to task President John Dramani Mahama and his government to encourage all of us to come together as Ghanaians in implementing such a noble cause as it relates to the late Professor John Atta Mills’ famous “the father of all Ghanaians” manifesto.

As per my previous rejoinder several people are still asking several questions, some of which include:

· If Okomfo Anokye (aka Amega Atsu Tsala Dallah Akplormada, the traditional priestly herbal healer from Notsie) is originally from Awukugua and is not an Asante or citizen of Nortsie, why didn’t he make his Awukugua people great?

· If Okomfo Anokye is from originally Nortsie and is not an Asante or Akwamu, why didn’t he make Anloland/Eweland great?

Your answers may be as good as mine! He had no “permanent home” in any of these “homelands”. Remember he was living within the Awukuaguahene’s court as a reward for healing one of the chief’s family members!

Source: Dr. A. Kobla Dotse dotse@earthlink.net

Contributors: Dr. David Tay Mad. M. Amitor Aidam Mr. Daniel Dzakpasu Mr. Doe Ladzekpo Anlo kotsie klolo, Anlo gorgor le vii, Du no eme mase emenya, Naketi deka no dzo me bi nu!